JUBA, Sudan — Clashes broke out Wednesday and continued Thursday between a breakaway commander and the former rebel military of Southern Sudan, killing at least 16 people and ending a key cease-fire just months before the war-torn region is set to emerge as the world's newest nation.
The Jan. 5 agreement signed between the Southern Sudan army and rebel George Athor helped pave the way for the undeveloped region's peaceful referendum on independence Jan. 9-15. Southern Sudan is set for nationhood in July after 99 percent voted in favor of separation. Sudanese President Omar al Bashir certified the result Monday.
"The cease-fire is now broken," said Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the Southern Sudan military, the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
The referendum was the core part of a 2005 U.S.-brokered peace deal between Sudan's Arab government in the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, ending decades of conflict between the regions that killed 2 million people.
Athor, a former Sudan People's Liberation Army chief of staff, took up arms against Sudan's southern government in Juba after a failed gubernatorial bid in April 2010 elections, claiming that the poll was rigged. Two less-known militia leaders launched separate uprisings at the same time. None has been fully squelched.
In the run-up to the referendum, Salva Kiir, the leader of Southern Sudan, granted Athor amnesty, which culminated in the cease-fire deal last month just days before the polls opened.
On Wednesday, Athor's men attacked the towns of Dor and Fangak in Southern Sudan's Jonglei state, Aguer said, killing four southern soldiers and 12 of Athor's men. Athor also planted land mines along a road in the area that detonated on two Sudan People's Liberation Army vehicles, Aguer said.
Fangak had been captured, but the southern army retook it. Fighting continued Thursday.
"We are still waiting for the number of casualties today. But there are casualties," Aguer said Thursday.
Athor denies being the aggressor, telling the Sudan Tribune website Wednesday that the southern army attacked him first. The renegade commander is known for giving highly inflated casualty figures for the southern army when he's talking to the news media.
More than a dozen civilians have been confirmed dead from the fighting in Fangak, according to Boutros Rwai, the head of a local human rights group and a native of the area. Athor's men attacked the town without provocation, he said.
The renewed fighting between Athor and the southern army is the latest in a wave of violence to hit the region in the past week, putting a damper on the otherwise celebratory mood after the announcement of the referendum results.
On Wednesday, a junior minister in the Southern Sudan government was assassinated in his office in what appeared to be a family dispute.
Last week, a series of mutinies among southerners in the northern army across the south's Upper Nile state killed 60, according to the state government.
During Sudan's civil war, southerners fought one another as much as they did the northern army. After the 2005 peace deal, as the referendum neared, the region mostly united under Kiir's leadership, but old tribal discords still swirl underneath the surface.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues).
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